Showing posts with label antitheses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label antitheses. Show all posts

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Concerning Retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (vv. 38-41)

Once again, Jesus deepens the national law of Israel, the Mosaic law, to be the fullness of the moral law. What is the most reasonable way of setting up punishments for actions? Well, the punishment should fit the crime, for one. This principle of punishment, known as the law of talion, can seem harsh today, and Gandhi is often invoked as saying "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

I think this misses the cultural context of the law of talion (sometimes referred to as lex talionis due probably to the large tradition of Latin in Christianity), which was actually asserting the equality of persons in justice. Surrounding legal codes had different punishments for different people of different classes, and the biblical text now says "no, all people have equal intrinsic worth regardless of class, gender, race, we must punish them all equally for their transgressions."

Still think it is not reflective of the highest standard of morality? Good, because it is not. It is simply the manner in which Israel would administer justice. Jesus gives the definitive moral way to act in situations where the law of talion might apply: "do not resist one who is evil." The context makes clear that it does not mean "tolerate evil" - but that one should not seek revenge for evil done to oneself. Indeed, if the wrongdoing is done to oneself alone, then meekness and compliance is the right response. What an utterly stupefying message! Still, is this not the basis for forgiveness? When we forgive, we do not simply accept the wrong we have received, but we relinquish the right to retaliate. In some sense, we take upon ourselves the punishment that the other deserves.

There is more to this than simply "forgive", as the last bit indicates:

"Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you." (v. 42) 

The other part of the principle that Jesus is expressing here seems to be that we should give what we have when it is demanded of us: when we are hit, we give the opportunity to hit more. When we have our coat stolen, we give also our cape. When we are demanded to walk a mile, we walk two. And now finally, when we are asked to give money, we give.

It is clear that no legal system can be founded on such principles of radical forgiveness and self-giving, since the world would dissolve into chaos. Nonetheless, we who would be followers of Jesus must abide not by the law of the land, but by the law of morality. Therefore, we are asked to forgive and to give whenever it concerns us.

Concerning Oaths (Matthew 5:33-37)

“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil." (vv. 33-37)

Here, Jesus is condemning a practice that had become rampant and problematic: people would not swear by God's name and take it lightly, but they would swear by something else (the heavens, the earth, Jerusalem, their own head, and various others) and then consider it appropriate to take such an oath with breeze. His condemnation has one main point other than the obvious one of not swearing oaths lightly:  swearing an oath by something seems to indicate that one has control over and own, and this is false. If one did not have some control or ownership over it, what difference does it make to swear by it or by nothing at all? I would say the answer is no difference. So swearing by something to make it sound more powerful is a mirage of honesty. Swearing by things instead of God such as his created bodies also does not bypass the problem that taking the things of God in vain is wrong.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Concerning Adultery and Divorce (Matthew 5:27-32)

 The traditionally labelled second and third antitheses are closely related because they both deepen the Law such that certain behaviours are now considered adultery or precursors to adultery. The section begins:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (vv. 27-28)

Just as anger was in some sense equivalent to murder in the heart, so too lust is equivalent to adultery in the heart. There is a definite logic behind this idea: adultery is sex outside the marital bonds, and lust is desire for sex outside marital bonds.[1] Or to express it another way, adultery is an inordinate act of sex, and lust is the inordinate desire for sex.

Adultery, as I have said before, is necessarily a breaking of the marital bonds with sex outside of them, and lust-as-adultery-of-the-heart is therefore also in the context of marriage. Nonetheless, lust outside marriage is also sinful, but it becomes lust-as-fornication-in-the-heart, not adultery of the heart. That means that lust even after one's future wife is sinful.

How does one cope with something that seems as innate as a desire? Jesus continues:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (vv. 29-30)

 I think this is clearly hyperbole to make a point, but it is a forceful point nonetheless. Jesus' advice appeals to priorities: the eternal matters more than the temporal. It is worth gorging out an eye if it causes you to sin, because sin kills and condemns eternally, whereas it is only temporarily that one would be without an eye. If the problem were really solved by taking out the eye, then it would be worth it.

Now, a quick word on hell. It is interesting that people complain about God in the Old Testament scriptures being a good of anger and judgement, and Jesus the revelation of God as loving, kind and nice, because this is far from the case. One has to cherry-pick from the Old Testament to find God as solely angry, but one also has to cherry-pick from the New Testament to find God as solely nice. The fact is, Jesus speaks about hell more than the whole Old Testament, as far as I can tell. This is not surprising, since Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," is keenly aware of the consequences involved with sin. Nonetheless, the use of the imagery of fire is not exactly literal, not exactly metaphorical - fires of hell refers to, in the Greek, the Valley of Gehenna, a place south of Jerusalem which served as a large dumb, where rubbish was burned continuously. It is a real place that Jesus refers to, but what we call hell is not literally that place south of Jerusalem, particularly because such a place no longer exists. Perhaps we should take this as indication that hell no longer exists! More seriously, this talk of hell is borrowing imagery to make a point, not speaking of a real pit of fire.

How does one apply this? One is meant to see how intensely important it is to avoid hell. If going to the bar with one's friends might cause drunkenness, then it is better to cut off those friendships (gathering in that particular context) than go to hell. If walking down certain streets makes on burn with lust, but it is the only way to get to work on time and avoid being fired, then it is better to lose one's job than one's soul.

Is that not too radical? Well, it depends on whether one thinks damnation is a big problem or something of relatively small dimension. Jesus' argument rests on this point: that no cost is too great for avoiding hell.

This little section is actually quite amusing, Jesus is not actually illustrating how to deal with lust and adultery as much as he is setting up the principle that things must be removed if they cause sin. The implication seems to be that, if one is tempted to commit adultery, one should cut off the parts involved in adultery. This is a crowd which is made up of mostly men, I suspect, so the idea is "cut off even your testes and penis before you would commit adultery." See how Jesus can also be funny, in his own dark way?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (vv. 31-32)

 Here, I remind that the Law was a national law, which means that at times the morality was made more lax for the sake of the people's ability to function.[2] Now Jesus is revealing, or making explicit, the fullness of the moral law, where divorce is not permitted (except on the grounds of unchastity). There is actually some debate about whether the Greek is correctly understood as "unchastity," but I will have to trust the translators since I am not able to judge for myself.

From this section alone, Jesus explains the moral law as saying that no longer may it be deemed fine to divorce except under very particular circumstances. The companion passage on divorce in St Matthew's writings is Matthew 19, but let me not confuse teachings, and centre primarily on this text here.

Jesus' rationale is interesting, because it is not immediately obvious why divorce makes the wife an adulteress. Is it because she will be forced to re-marry, since at that time being a single woman was practically impossible? I think this is the most likely explanation. Why is it unchastity? Very simple: divorce does not really exist. Issuing a certificate of divorce cannot separate the man and woman united in marriage, because no such thing can annul a covenant. So when one attempts to remarry and begins marital relations, what happens? One is having sex outside true wedlock, and is therefore committing adultery. That is why whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery - she is the wife of another person.

The interesting consequence of this is that marrying a woman who was divorced, but whose husband has now died, is no longer adultery under that logic. The ending of the covenant of marriage at death was the idea that St Paul appeals to in Romans 7 - although with Jesus conquering death, it is not entirely obvious that now marriage can endure and conquer death too.   

How should this play out in the Church and in the world? Well, it is my opinion that the defenders of marriage as it has universally been understood (between members of opposite sex), throughout most cultures and times, lost their battle when they allowed divorce. What demeans the institution more, hitherto unheard of unions or complete freedom to break off at whim? It is my contention that secular legalization of divorce is a far greater evil, has and will continue to produce far more broken families, children without both parents, than same-sex marriage will. Does that mean same-sex marriage is just fine, since marriage is already broken? It does not follow in the slightest. Still, one's platform is backwards if one is pro-divorce but against same-sex marriage.

Amidst all the wordliness that has crept into Christendom, it is reassuring that the Church has stuck by her commitment to the truth, even though all of England went Anglican because she would not compromise and let a randy monarch have a divorce, and even though many hate her for it.

[1] If this is the correct analogy being made, then it follows that desire for sexuality after one's own husband or wife is not lust, and not sinful.
[2] Jesus will later say that divorce was permitted because of the hardness of heart of the Israelites - permitted in Deuteronomy, though, which is the second law.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Concerning Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)

The Mathean antitheses form the backbone of Jesus as New Moses in the sermon on the mount. The original Moses on Mt Sinai gave the Law which was to essentially be the legislation of the nation of Israel. It dealt a great deal with outward righteousness because Israel was meant to be an example to all the nations.

Now, Jesus says that our righteousness must surpass that if we are ever to enter the kingdom of heaven. What will that involve? It is very simple really: what previously applied to actions, now applies also to the heart. Without more delay, the words of Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (vv. 21-22)

Jesus reiterates that killing is unlawful, but that's not enough. The new righteousness goes beyond that to say that whoever is angry with his brother sins also ("shall be liable to judgement"). Let me side track for a moment to give a very important comment: "brother" corresponds always in the gospel according to St Matthew, as far as I can tell, to fellow members of the Church, fellow Christians. This is perhaps unfortunate for those who want to use the very strong words of Jesus in chapter 25 to be about general social justice, and I count myself among them (though this is hardly the only text that makes this point), but it does lead to an interesting issue: if this is the case, then St Matthew is portraying Jesus as somewhat anachronistic, saying things that do not yet make sense. Very well, since Jesus is aware of what will happen after his resurrection, and knows that he will found the Church, it is not in the slightest unreasonable to suggest that Jesus can speak beforehand what will soon be in effect. The interesting part is that the idea that "all this stuff is essentially pre-cross and corresponds to the Old Testament" also has to be denied, because that is an appeal to the timing of his words, and yet we have just granted that Jesus speaks of post-cross events in talking of the Church. Even chapter 25 itself will make this point, whether you think brother is Christian or not, but I think it should be outlined first here.

Back to the passage, Jesus speaks about degree of consequences: liability to judgement of some sort for anger at a brother, liability to a council for insulting him, and liability to the fires of hell for saying, "You fool!" What does this hierarchy imply if not that some sins are worse than others, and hence carry larger consequences than others? We should therefore treat the hierarchy properly.

It is interesting to note that hell and council judgement have a very similar antecedent: I have heard that saying "you fool" was far worse then than it is now, and that seems to fit this, so due to lack of knowledge, I will have to defer to others.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  (vv. 23-25)

There's an issue that Jesus addresses here in the first antithesis, and that is, what if we do anger or insult our brother? What then? The Mosaic Law had very specific guidelines for what to do in cases of each sin. He does not propose another sacrifice of a lamb or turtle dove - the sacrifice he requires is much greater. We are to swallow any pride and go reconcile ourselves to our brother, and then come and give our offering. The offering we give nowadays could be understood sort of symbolically as the living sacrifice that we offer to God, as seen in Romans 12, but more concretely it refers to the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Eucharist we offer up Christ, and I think Jesus instructs us to reconcile ourselves to our brethren before thence. Beyond that though, in partaking directly of the Eucharist, we participate most prominently in the offering, and in doing so in such a state (more generally and commonly known as "state of mortal sin") we run the risk of what Jesus says next:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. (v. 25)

So what consequences could come? In a word, judgement. That judgement will be just, for Jesus says that ever last penny shall be paid - there is no longer any leeway once the matter is taken to the judge and the guard. Far better then to settle the matter quickly with one's brother before things escalate out of proportion.

I mentioned the liturgy once, let me do it once again, because it is one of the most beautifully rich things the Church offers. Here Jesus calls for reconciliation before the offering, and this is what is represented in the liturgy with the penitential rite, the offering of the sign of peace and the Our Father. First, we confess our sins to God "and to you my brothers and sisters." This is the first step in reconciliation. Later, we offer each other the sign of peace, which is both a real desire for peace with the other, but also a sort of peace treaty, in that we extend the invitation for reconciliation. Later still we pray the Our Father, which I will comment on soon, but it suffices to remind that one of the lines is "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" - either we are asking to be set as the standard for forgiveness, or we are actually acknowledging the fact of the matter which is that we have already forgiven those who sin against us. Then comes the Eucharist.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Not to Abolish, but to Fulfil (Matthew 5:17-20)

St Matthew has presented Jesus as going up the mount, giving the beatitudes and informing the Church of her function as salt of the earth and light of the world. I wrote a bit about what that meant, and it involved what one might mundanely call "doing good works," or more poetically express this as "reflecting the light and glory of Christ" or "presenting Jesus Christ in word and deed." All these point to the same underlying truth, that the Church is called to the very highest standard of morality - indeed the next section of the sermon, known as the "antitheses" ends with Jesus commanding:

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
(v. 48)

This conclusion to the antitheses is the interpretive key to the whole of the sermon on the mount, particularly the moral teaching. What is Jesus doing? Isn't he just contradicting six sections of the Mosaic Law? No, he is not. Yet nor is he strictly speaking just interpreting the spirit of the law.

"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." (vv. 17-18)

Jesus is very clear that he is not here to get rid of the Law (capitalized to show that I refer to the Mosaic Law - though I may be inconsistent) or the prophets. This "law and prophets" is used to refer to the Old Testament, which is the only collection of Sacred Scripture that existed at the time, and so denotes the totality of what is nowadays the Old Testament. Is the wisdom literature Scripture? Absolutely. But that got canonized after the Law (Pentateuch - five books of Moses) and prophets did, so I suspect the idiom just stuck. So he is not here to get rid of the teachings of the Old Testament. [1] He is saying this, however, because it might seem like it when he starts giving people his teaching.

Having been warned, we should expect that Jesus' words sound like contradiction when they are in fact not. What does it mean to not abolish but fulfil? Well, abolishing something means getting rid of it. Fulfilling something can either mean bringing to completion or bringing it fullness (fulfilling comes from filling to full). It is not clear from the word fulfil itself whether completion implies finish and end, but the next line leaves no doubt: "until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not the stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished." The law is here to stay for some time yet. So what is the change? It is not simply a new interpretation, for fulfilling means more than "showing true meaning."

Jesus adds, and does not take away. His commands go deeper than the Law without removing anything. His formulaic statement is "You have heard it said that...but I say to you..."  which may as well be "You have heard it said that...and I say to you that even..." For example, adultery is immoral described as immoral in the Mosaic Law, and it is still immoral now - but even lusting after a married woman, or when married, is adultery of the heart.[2]

Why deepen the Law when it was already hard enough? Jesus continues:
"Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (vv. 19-20)

There is something rather interesting about this part, because whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments is not necessarily condemned - he will simply be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Are the least in the kingdom of heaven actually in hell? Well, it is not clear, specially since Jesus talks directly afterwards about people who will never enter the kingdom of heaven. I suspect the answer is that breaking one of the least of the commandments of the law will not cause one to go to hell, but it surely will not make one great there. That seems to be what the text is saying.

Here is why it is important to deepen the Law: observance of the Law is not enough. One has to be even more righteous than the greatest observers of the Law, that is, the scribes and Pharisees. Unless one is more righteous than even these most pious of the Jews, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

So the antitheses are going to fulfil the Law in the sense that they will go all the way, express the Law to the fullest. Observance of these will imply perfection, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." When we get to them, we will be forced to ask, as the disciples did  a little later, "who then can enter the kingdom of God?" Is it really possible to observe such penetrating commands?

[1] Insofar as Old Testament refers to the old covenant, it reaches its end in the Paschal ministry of Jesus on the cross, when he ushers in the New Testament - the new covenant. Here I mean the set of teachings found in the books referred to as Old Testament.
[2] Adultery is necessarily a marital sin, one that occurs within the context of the covenant of marriage - yet lest we think that lust when unmarried is fine, remember that an analogous statement could be made for lust and fornication. Still sin, just under a different name, with different immediate effects.